By Jim Misunas
LARNED — Professional pilot Kay Alley transformed a family tragedy into a lifelong hobby and career of flying airplanes.
The Wichita pilot and her husband lost their 12-year-old son Eric Layne Alley to a childhood disease in 1974 at a hospital in Palo, Alto, Calif.
Ironically, Kay had just tweaked her interest in flying just prior to that tragedy. She used a coupon from a magazine advertising a Cessna Discovery Flight. For $5, she took her first airplane ride at the Augusta Airport in 1974.
She was 100 feet off the ground in her first flying lesson when she knew she was destined to fly.
“I loved it,” she said. “I took up flying as a hobby and looks where it’s led me.”
The debate about whether Kay should pursue her passion reached its resolution when Kay told her husband, Marion, she needed a fresh challenge to get over the death.
“I needed something to pull myself up,” she told residents of the West Unit at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility.
The residents, all overcoming some type of past mental issue, understood exactly what Alley meant. Every one of them has battled a personal or family issue that has them receiving treatment and rehabilitation at LCMHF.
Kay and her husband Marion are parents to two grown children and six grandchildren. She recently transported two of her grandchildren for their first flight in Denton, Texas.
After taking a few minutes at the controls, her grandson, Tanner, said, “Grandma, this is easy. It’s just like playing my video game.”
It took Alley two years and an initial $1,200 investment to earn her pilot’s license. Nowadays, she estimates it would require a $9,000 investment to earn a pilot’s license.
She emphasized that flying an airplane is no more complicated than driving a car. However, there are multiple instruments that check altitude, fuel, oil pressure, direction, height and speed.
“If I can drive a car, you can fly a plane,” she said. “Once you learn how to ascend and descend the plane, you’ve got the basics down. If I can do it, you could do it too.”
Aircraft includes single-engine, twin-engine and turbine-jet. She has flown countless hours in various Beechcraft and Cessna models, and has earned a variety of professional pilot ratings.
She works as a delivery pilot for Pilot International Inc., a Valley Center-based company that delivers new and used aircraft across the United States and to foreign countries. It costs several thousand dollars to fly an aircraft to an overseas owner.
She once delivered a Cessna Caravan to China in 30 hours of flying time over seven days. She traveled from Seattle, Wash., Anchorage, Alaska; Nome, Alaska, then across the Bering Sea. She traveled down the east coast of Russia and into China.
Another time she was part of a three-plane transport that flew to Thailand on a island-hopping journey that stopped in Hawaii, Wake Island, Saipan Island and the Philippines.
“We needed special permission to land in certain places,” she said. “In some places, you literally need an act of Congress.”
Her favorite part of flying in foreign countries is sightseeing. In Thailand, she visited Buddhist temples and rode an elephant.
Alley held the LCMHF residents transfixed with her stories of flying around the world, all started with a $5 flight. Alley has met many famous female pilots.
She told about America’s first female aviator, Kansan-born Amelia Earhart, who was never found any clues of her disappearance from an international flight in 1937. It has been suggested that Earhart disappeared somewhere in the Pacific Islands.
Earhart was instrumental in forming the “99s” a women’s pilot organization that was started with 99 female pilots in 1929.
Before ferrying aircraft, she had a variety of pilot jobs, including air-ambulance for a hospital, corporate pilot for a local doctor, demonstration pilot for a flying club, and charter flights for a local fixed base operator. She worked as a real estate agent for eight years with the J.P Weigand before returning to flying.
She has flown to the Caribbean islands of Guadalupe, Barbados, Puerto Rico; the Asian continent to see China, Russia and Thailand; the European countries of Ireland, England and France and the Pacific islands of Hawaii, Saipan and the Philippines.
Alley has served for the Kansas Aviation Museum’s Hall of Fame committee, the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, the Kansas 99ers, and the Aviation Advisory Council at the Kansas State University in Salina.